Arduous journey to the top for coach who transformed Wales

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LYON, FRANCE >> To be one game away from the European Championship final is an achievement for any coach. Even more so for Chris Coleman.

The journey to Wednesday's game against Portugal — the first semifinal in Welsh football history — has been an arduous one for the 46-year-old Coleman.

His playing career prematurely ended following a car crash that he was fortunate to survive, while his first managerial job in the spotlight of the Premier League was terminated just as he was getting going.

Five years were spent in the managerial wilderness in lower-league jobs in England, Spain and Greece, between spells of being unemployed.

"There are a lot of good managers out of work because there only so many jobs," Coleman said Tuesday. "Two jobs running if you get it wrong, it's hard to get that third one. That's generally the rule."

Many in Coleman's position might have given up and pursued an easier life as a television pundit.

Coleman, however, had the greatest British manager of them all as a mentor: Alex Ferguson.

"I was out of work for a year and my next job, which was four years after managing in the Premier League (at Fulham), was in the second division in Greece," Coleman recalled. "I went there (to Larissa in 2011) on the advice of Alex Ferguson.

"He just told me, 'You've been out for a year, don't wait. The next one that comes up, it doesn't matter where it is — take it.' So I did. I took a chance. It's the best thing that happened to me."

Coleman regained his confidence, having been fired in 2010 after struggling in the second tier with Coventry.

"I rethought a lot about myself," Coleman said. "I got it wrong at Coventry. I can give you loads of sob stories about my time at Coventry but actually, if I'm honest, I could have done better."

The answer was typical of Coleman's candor, a reflection of the challenges he has faced to reach the Euro 2016 semifinals with his nation.

"You find out a lot about yourself when you are out of comfortable environment and you are asked difficult questions and you have to find the answers," Coleman said.

He faced those kinds of questions early in his Wales career, a job he inherited in tragic circumstances in early 2012 after Gary Speed took his own life. The lowest ebb on the field came in September 2012 with a 6-1 loss away to Serbia early in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.

"I had doubts whether I was capable of doing the job after the Serbia game," Coleman recently recalled.

When "you embarrass the country," as Coleman remembered it, resignation seemed the only option.

Coleman stuck at the job and Wales persevered with its coach through a qualifying campaign that produced three wins in 10 matches.

"It didn't seem to be working, but all of sudden it worked out," Football Association of Wales President David Griffiths said. "He changed the philosophy. Everyone was talking about Gary Speed, but Chris has done it his way."

Wales was rejuvenated inside two years as Coleman changed the team's mindset.

"We used to be far too honest," Coleman said at the Stade de Lyon. "Anything you need to do to stay in the game, you stay in the game. I call that being street-wise, football-smart.

"We've got much better at that in the last couple of years ... sometimes it's not very pretty, it can be ugly. People look at it and say it's negative."

It's been producing positive results.

With Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey leading on the pitch, surrounded by many unheralded players, Wales qualified for its first tournament since the 1958 World Cup.

The squad unity has shone through in France where Wales stunned Belgium to reach the semifinals.

"The team spirit is real," Coleman said. "It came from the darker days when it wasn't so easy for us."

Coleman's light touch and confident demeanor, while retaining a steely determination, certainly helps.

"Damnit," Coleman said, when asked at the Stade de Lyon if he was influenced by Italy's three-man defense. "We've been found out!"

Not yet in the knockout stage.


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